by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles’ mother wanted to show us a recording she’d been saving on her digital video recorder (this new gimcrack which is sort of like a DVD recorder only it records onto a hard drive and you don’t have a permanent medium to store it on; instead you hold it on the hard drive and erase it once you’ve seen it — something which rubs me the wrong way because I still don’t feel I’ve collected something unless I have it as a physical object, though younger people don’t have a problem with the evanescence of digital storage media either for video or audio): This Filthy World, a performance by film director John Waters in New York in 2006 (you could tell it was that old because Waters made jokes that only made sense when George W. Bush was still President and Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett Majors were still alive) which was essentially a stand-up comedy routine, referencing the production history of some of his films (both the early underground ones with Divine and the later ones that — while he still insists on shooting in his native Baltimore — have star names in their casts and union extras and crews, with all the work rules pertaining thereto) as well as some of his observations about the rest of life.
Waters proclaimed himself totally baffled by the “bear” phenomenon in the Gay male community — particularly the penchant of bears in relationships with other bears to refer to their partners as “husbear” or “significant otter” and their insistence that there’s a second coming-out process involved (“Please don’t tell your parents that you’re a bear,” he pleaded). Waters also did a routine about poppers as the one drug he actually likes — he joked about taking a hit of poppers while climbing up on a roller-coaster so he can feel the rush as it descends — and he insisted that Divine really did eat dogshit in the infamous scene at the end of his notorious film Pink Flamingos (a moviegoing experience I have yet to subject myself to). I must admit that I like the idea of John Waters even though Hairspray and Cry-Baby are the only films of his I’ve actually seen (interestingly he claimed credit for making Johnny Depp a star in the latter — before he’d been known only for his role in the TV series 21 Jump Street but it was after seeing him in Cry-Baby that Tim Burton decided to cast Depp in the title role of Edward Scissorhands, his breakthrough role in films — though I remember reading Traci Lords’ memoir and noting that, while she had nothing but praise for Waters and his sensitive direction of her in her first non-porn role, she said that already Depp was totally surrounded by an entourage and therefore she didn’t get to see or talk to him at all except when they actually had a scene together) — indeed, I found myself wishing the Burton/Depp Ed Wood had done well enough to merit a sequel because Waters would have been the perfect director for Ed Wood, Part 2.
Waters comes off as quite charming, disarmingly frank about how he worked and why his films are so sleazy — though about the only time he let down the mask and got at all personal was his grief over the death of Divine just one week after Hairspray opened, his joy at having the biggest hit of his career irreparably tainted by the loss of the unlikely star with whom he’d risen and to whom he’d given a superlative showcase (in Hairspray Divine played two parts, one female and one male). Waters also lamented the death of the “midnight movie” at the hands of videos and DVD’s, and expressed his admiration for beyond-the-pale filmmakers like William Castle (particularly the gimmick films like The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler — Waters said that when The Tingler played Baltimore and only a few seats were wired with the joy-buzzers that administered mild electric shocks to the people sitting in them, he got to the theatre early and felt under each seat just to make sure he would get a wired one, then sat through every showing of the film that day) and the virtually forgotten Kroger Babb, who in the 1940’s made a movie with the innocuous title Mom and Dad that got condemned by the Roman Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency and priests were instructed to tell their parishioners on Sunday that it was a major sin to see Mom and Dad.
I’d heard of Kroger Babb elsewhere — he was essentially to the 1940’s what Dwain Esper was to the 1930’s, making sleazy exploitation movies and carting prints and projectors around because, with regular movie theatres closed to him and his product, he had to rent bingo halls and other non-traditional locations and show his films in them. (Waters said that Babb specialized in going to towns too small to have a movie theatre at all and offering them his sort of entertainment because they otherwise didn’t have any way to see a movie other than a long drive to a city big enough to have a normal theatre.) What made Mom and Dad unique was that following a pretty ordinary story about unwed motherhood shot in black-and-white, Babb spliced on a full-color film of a woman giving birth to a baby (it was supposedly the heroine of his story but actually came from a company making medical films designed to help educate doctors and nurses) — and Waters marveled at the ability of the straight guys seeing this film to tune out the baby and just focus on the vagina. (What Waters didn’t mention about Babb was that in addition to producing exploitation films like Mom and Dad, he was also the first distributor to release a film by Ingmar Bergman in the U.S.)
Waters also had a lot of colorful anecdotes about making his early movies — including one for which he needed a farm; unencumbered by union rules and cheerily ignorant of the usual protocols about shooting on someone else’s property (like offering them payment and signing a release), he just walked his cast, crew and equipment onto a farm and shot in a pigsty, with the unforgettable response that for some reason the pigs found the sight of humans making a film sexually stimulating and started fucking each other — while the farm family that owned the place stayed indoors for the entire eight hours Waters and company were there and, if they had any idea their farm was being used as a film set, they ignored it and didn’t try to stop it. It would have been nice if This Filthy World had been more like a usual public appearance like a filmmaker — particularly if it had featured clips from Waters’ films — but as it stands This Filthy World is quite amusing and a neat glimpse into one of filmdom’s quirkier figures — and I especially liked his joke that instead of having directors do DVD commentaries on their own films, they hire some of the other crew members: “How about a really disgruntled editor saying, ‘Would you believe the shit that director gave me to work with?’” It’s also worth noting that Red Envelope Entertainment is actually a subsidiary of Netflix, the company that rents DVD’s by mail — I’d certainly had no idea that Netflix had a subsidiary that did theatrical distribution!